'Wordplay' Comes To Sundance

"Wordplay" director Patrick Creadon, holding a pencil at left, and puzzle master Will Shortz are photographed at the "Wordplay" brunch in Park City, Utah, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006.
They are self-professed word nerds. Their numbers include former President Clinton, Jon Stewart, the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls and New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina. Their idol is a guy named Will Shortz.

Crossword puzzles and the people who love them are the subject of the lively documentary "Wordplay," which premiered over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival.

Shortz is the pastime's key figure, The New York Times crossword puzzle editor who's also heard on public radio.

"He's the ambassador of the crossword puzzle world. He's really the pinnacle of this community," Patrick Creadon, a cinematographer making his directing debut with "Wordplay," said in an Associated Press interview alongside Shortz.

Playing the festival in search of a theatrical distributor, "Wordplay" proved to be a crowd-pleaser in its initial Sundance screenings, with potential to capture the sort of commercial audience that made hits out of such documentaries as "Spellbound" and "Mad Hot Ballroom."

The film uses Shortz's career as a focus, from his love of puzzles as a boy, to the creation of his own academic major — "enigmatology," or the study of puzzles — at Indiana University, through his professional work and his shepherding of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament each year in Stamford, Conn.

Creadon and his wife, producer Christine O'Malley, also feature rank-and-file puzzlers, colleagues who help Shortz create the Times crosswords and lovably fierce tournament competitors.

Ellen Ripstein, the 2001 tournament champion, calls herself a "little nerd girl," but she doesn't mind firing back when people mock her passion for crossword puzzles.

"I had a boyfriend once who would kind of put me down, and I'd go, `Well, what are you the best in the country at?"' Ripstein said.

Shortz said the film has left him pleasantly puzzled at how crosswords resonate emotionally with people.

"Crosswords are such a cerebral thing, you don't expect it to have so much emotional connection with people. But this movie is funny, you laugh a lot, there are touching moments, people crying. It's exciting. You usually don't associate crossword puzzles with excitement, but every time I watch this movie — and I've seen it four times — every time I watch it, my hands get clammy and I start to sweat."